INTERVIEW China, a new equality and the world
A conversation with Wang Hui
By Gabriele Battaglia
BEIJING - Wang Hui is one of the great contemporary Chinese scholars. Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences at Beijing's Tsinghua University, he is universally considered as one of the main representatives of the Chinese "new left", a definition he doesn't like, being too tied to old patterns and to a Western point of view. "Let's go beyond old thoughts" definitely seems his new manifesto and in today's China the equality issue happens to be a good start.
Wang Hui: [Currently] I'm writing about "the equality of what?". It is a big issue now, everywhere, both in China and in the West. Here, it's about the rich and the rural regions and it is also about
the ecological crisis and other issues such as the minorities.
We all know [in China] there is a crisis of equality, but how to define it? At the end of the '70s, China's socialism was in crisis, so some people attacked equality, especially the state-owned enterprises, by suggesting a new liberal agenda: privatization, property rights and so on.
At the same time they suggested a new kind of equality, calling it "equality of opportunities" and the legal frame followed. But this came to be the legitimation of an unequal process. Everybody can see how the workers suffered from privatization, which started in the mid-'90s when they became unemployed and the compensation was very low or none at all. On behalf of the market we had deprivation, they took away rights and property from the hands of labor while arguing for equality of opportunities.
Then, at the end of the '90s, came debate about a crisis in social welfare and an attempt to rebuild. For instance, how to spread the medical system in the countryside.
In this context, the idea of "equality of redistribution" re-emerged in China, but now the process itself is facing new challenges. On one hand it is necessary to rebuild the social security system for everybody; that's about basic rights. However, this is just a response to the earlier stage, the privatization process, and now we need to do something for the migrant workers, otherwise there will be turmoil.
The big challenge here is that the Chinese economy is slowing down. More money is needed to build up that social security system while the revenues are decreasing. And at the same time, this kind of growth is so unfriendly toward the environment.
More and more energy is needed, but when you make a project for a new dam you immediately face a protest. You need to rebuild the social security system including in it ecological preservation, and this is a paradoxical, contradictory situation.
This means that you have to change the production model. There is a gap between the poor and the rich, but the main gap is between urban and rural population. So the government launched this new campaign for urbanization, chengzhenhua, [urbanization of medium and small cities] but it is nothing new, it has been like that for decades. At the same time, you see this process happening in the Chinese frontiers, the minority areas in the southwest and morthwest whose culture, lifestyle and religion are very different.
So, on one hand it's perfectly legitimate to improve the economic situation there; however we have also an ecological crisis going hand in hand with a cultural crisis, because their lifestyle is changing, and so we have conflicts in Xinjiang and Tibet.
All this means that we basically need a new idea of equality that incorporates the idea of diversity: not simply equalize everybody and everything but try to respect singularity, diversity, differences without rejecting the basic idea of equality. This is the challenge because modern equality was based on the idea of citizens who are equal. But now how to deal with lifestyles, religions, biodiversity, environment? Which equality we need? Maybe not a single idea, but a set of ideas. And this reminds to the kind of development we want.
But it's not easy to convince those economists and policy-makers in charge of the economic process, basically because the economic issue has become dominant especially for different interest groups. Even the officials can't control the whole process. So the point is that you have to think about the general issue, not only about investment and money.
This is the reason why right now we have in China a debate about the basic orientation of reforms. You know we have a say: "Cross the river by feeling the stones", but now where are the banks of the river? And you risk getting lost in the middle of the river. The point now is that nobody can clearly define where the banks are.
Gabriele Battaglia: How to put this debate in concrete terms?
WH: Take the big debate about the constitution we have now. It is very ambiguous because the new liberals argue for a constitutional reform whose implication is to change the whole political system. However, "constitutional reform" means starting from the constitution itself. If you start from the rejection of the constitution this means revolution. And right now there is no social base for a revolution. The basic guarantee of the constitution is the Communist Party in power, and this is not a big problem because everybody knows that there is no other political force which can replace the Communist Party. Even the radicals of the right-wing perfectly know this.
On the other hand, if you recognize this constitution it means that we are actually a socialist country and the working class is the leading class. So what is the political status of the working class in China?
Opening a discussion about the constitution is good and we need to go back to the 1954 constitution and guarantee basic rights. It was quite open and good; the Communist Party was the leading force, but you had freedom of speech and the right to strike, which was cancelled in 1982 after the Cultural Revolution, when Deng Xiaoping thought that China was at risk of anarchy and so they changed the constitution.
Again, the way to go back to this constitutional debate is to open up the discussion. The problem is that this discussion is very official so far; there is no real public space. This also relates to another big issue in China, which is the crisis of the media. On one hand, you have a huge amount of publications; on the other, public space is shrinking.
And here we have the Nanfang Zhoumo case last January, the weekly magazine whose editorial board's new year editorial on the defense of the constitution was substituted with another one praising the Communist Party, by the local propaganda leader. Huge protests happened in that case.
There is a relation, but this is not a good case because the conflict didn't happen about the public debate, it happened within the system: the appointed board members and their leaders. On behalf of freedom of speech there was a complete exclusion of real public opinion. So it was actually a matter of power redistribution. They simply rejected any single different idea to be published in their newspapers, there was only one side's idea, polarized in the Southern Weekend [Nanfang Zhoumo] and the People's Daily. Ironically both were kind of official newspapers. The conflict was about the leadership of the Department of Propaganda between old and new leaders.
This is also a crisis of representation because it is just a representation of the idea of freedom of speech and democracy, as much as the Communist Party is the representation of the idea of working class. We really need to rethink and redefine public space because the media can easily mislead public opinion towards so called "truth". This is why when I was editor of Dushu magazine [until 2007] I tried to open up this kind of space. And it is interesting: now it is all completely gone, not allowed by all the mainstream forces.
GB: What about urbanization, so called chengzhenhua?
WH: It's difficult to say if generally speaking it is right or wrong. Maybe here is good and there is bad. For instance in some areas a large amount of urbanization means a high ecological price but somewhere else it fits. So you need to allow some experiments to go on, and according to our past experience these are the real driving force for the reforms. In China, most of the general macropolicy has always been a recognition of an earlier local process, not the beginning of it. For instance, rural reform started in Anhui and then spread out. So you need an even bigger space for these experiments.
GB: Isn't chengzhenhua an egalitarian process? It looks like an attempt to create the biggest middle-class in the world.
WH: I'm afraid chengzhenhua is too much of a top-down process, so why not allow the people to try some practical experiment from the lower level and gradually make it more and more sophisticated?
For instance in Chengdu and Chongqing, they have already had discussions about integration, how to deal with the population and their citizen status. But we have another big problem, which is that everywhere there is no longer any difference among the cities. This is a big loss of diversity.
Nobody can reverse the process, so we have to think about it. Sometimes the choice between slow and fast is not an easy one. I think it's not necessarily good to have fast Internet in every single village and China has this problem: it's too fast.
Once you have urbanized, how do you guarantee enough land for cultivation, who can you guarantee food for the huge Chinese population? So we have Monsanto's shares booming in the stock market. Why? Because China made an agreement with Argentina to allow and import their OGM [genetically modified] products. And you know these kind of products are unpredictable but at the same time you need to guarantee food for a huge and dense population while economic growth means more land. Everybody knows the secret of Chinese growth is a land policy carried on by local governments: without grabbing land and selling it to developers there is no way to get enough taxes.
There are limits, and nobody can guarantee a success and even the creation of a middle-class, which is shrinking everywhere. How can we guarantee a middle-class instead of slums, as happened in India or Latin America? Without land, people become "unemployed without land" in an urban area.
So now we have some scholars who even argue that slums are good because the slum system is based on private property of land and "freedom of migration": slums are "human rights", you see? This is the reason why I feel like writing something about "the equality of what?".
Please note that in the last few weeks the rhetoric of the government on chengzhenhua has changed. They now speak of wentuo chengzhenhua, which means "safe urbanization". Zhang Gaoli [first-ranked vice premier of the PRC and a member of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party] was the first to speak in these terms.
What does it mean? I guess something like this. Almost 10% of the Chinese population is a migrant population, which for example is a huge problem for domestic transportation, like you see during the Spring Festival. But in these past few years the situation has improved because of the [global financial] crisis, which pushed many migrants back to their villages and to cultivate the land. This probably means that migration should not necessary be so fast and so long-distance. People don't lose contact with their hometown, and we could have migration at the local level. This is a positive development, and the government probably thinks now in these terms. But if the process is too fast it is still dangerous.
So, the land and the people. Here we have the Wukan case - the village whose rebellion against land eviction forced a political change: new grassroots elections after many years.
You know the latest developments. It was a sort of model for democracy but eventually didn't follow [after one year the evictions go on and villagers' anger is rising against the newly elected local committee] and when this happened the media lost interest in that and they even didn't know how to define it, the real difficulties those people meet. In the beginning it was easy: a call for elections. But when the real problems emerged the media lost their voice.
The point is [it] not only Wukan, it's a huge process going on since 2005 with the privatization of state enterprises and so on, all on behalf of democracy and the protection of private property. What's the result of that? At first it was "democracy", then, when even the elected local leaders became critical about it, everybody lost interest.
This is the problem, which means we need a new vocabulary. The debate inside the left is about the language to define the new process and only in this way you can find new strategies to fight. At the state level and at the village level is the same thing: the political form and the social form do not match, and it's the same between our system and the Western system.
In Western media it's too easy to use terms such as totalitarian state or state capitalism about China, but understanding other political forms is too challenging. And for the mainstream media here, if anything happens you immediately go back to the Cultural Revolution and the crisis of that utopia. But this is not the point, since utopia is not the beginning of a problem, it is the response to a problem we already have. It reveals our incapability of mastering reality.
Let's see the Diaoyu islands issue. Both the Chinese and the Japanese speakers give a response based on a common ground: this happens because of Mao's earlier policy. I asked them: "If this problem comes from Mao, why in Mao's era a reconciliation took place in 1972 and no such a big crisis happened? China was a socialist country, Japan a capitalist one, but they sat together and reached ambiguous agreements, suspended any conflict for almost 40 years which in terms of foreign policy is quite successful. What's the foundation for that? Why have the islands suddenly became a main issue now, instead?"
For them everything which is wrong is past and it is not our responsibility. This is ridiculous and looks really like the call of ideology.
GB: Speaking of scapegoats, such as Mao in this case, do you have any idea about the Edward Snowden case and the revelations about widespread US espionage? The guy flew away right now, but this is anyway a big issue for China and Hong Kong.
WH: I disagree with those people who argued that this guy should have been handed over to the US; this is not the case. Instead, a big investigation should start because Snowden revealed that the US got a huge amount of information from Hong Kong and China. Why don't we do this investigation and reveal it to the world? I really argue that in this case China shouldn't only defend China's interest, it should keep this case transparent to the world. Again, it's a case of opening up.
Of course the hacking issue is widespread. America is actually the more culpable country, since we all use Microsoft, Apple and Google, but all the countries do that and now we need to reveal the whole story to the world.
I really hope China's relations with America will improve, but this doesn't mean it must compromise too much. It's not necessary. I really think China shouldn't use this case to defend its own behavior. Instead, I think that this kind of debate needs a real international opinion because the US got a lot of information from Europe too. And ironically most of America's media now describes that guy as a criminal.
GB: So it's a test for China too.
WH: Yes, it's very interesting because this is a big test not only for America. It is a big test especially for China. It is meaningful not only for the international system but also for China's inner system and its relations with Hong Kong. Snowden arrived in Hong Kong because he knew it's different from China. Of course he didn't come to Beijing.
And also, Hong Kong and the US subscribe to international treaties. So some people in China acknowledged for the first time that Hong Kong enjoys some kind of rights which only nation-states, sovereign states, have. So what kind of state is Hong Kong within our system? This is a big issue because we have not really clear what the double system means.
Some people immediately argued this is the first time we know Hong Kong has such an independent legal system in the international realm, and this means it has also a kind of sovereignty. And in my opinion this is interesting because, again, the handover of Hong Kong to China was the result of negotiations between Britain and China's government, not a public process. Now it will be tested by the people. So I think this is a very good story with different possible developments.
GB: How this case can affect relations between China and the US?
WH: As for America, well they are embarrassed but not so much, they don't care that much about their behavior. They did so many wars, killings, kidnappings, so this is nothing new. But here it's important because every reform here is a China-America matter. Even if people criticize how they launch a war in Muslim countries, South America or Africa, America is the model because people there enjoy freedom of speech and, especially, state interference in people's private life is illegal.
In Chinese, Weibo [microblogging] people repeat these slogans every day, and now this story has happened. So what is the response? My point is that this is not only an American problem. Here we have the disillusion about a certain kind of political change, this is important because otherwise we always try to take "the other" as a model.
Now the new nature of the crisis is totally different from the Cold War and post-Cold War context. You cannot simply think that we can replace this system with that system. We don't want to defend this system but try to change it. And we need to rethink reality, not simply start from the illusion about "the other". This is only a small story, but also a new beginning.
There's a debate between the Chinese and former Soviet academic world, and I recently read the book of Rein Mullerson, who is the president of the Tallin University's Law School and was also Gorbachev's legal adviser during the [USSR] reform era. Well, he is very critical toward that era's process and says we must rethink it. The context is different but we both agree that for China it's pretty much the same, the process is similar. I remember the slogans of the Tiananmen movement in 1989 because I was there, and at the beginning of the hunger strike, when Gorbachev came to visit China, we had this: "We want 58, not 85", because Gorbachev was 58 and Deng Xiaoping was 85. But history proved that 85 was possibly smarter than 58, and this is the irony.
Gabriele Battaglia is an observer of Chinese affairs based in Beijing, the place to be and a good starting point for a look on globalization and its alternatives. He is a member of China-Files agency, and has previously been a writer for PeaceReporter and E-il mensile magazines.
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